Running The Gauntlet: Rite of Passage Or Physical Abuse

Running The Gauntlet: Rite of Passage Or Physical Abuse



Written by Iva Djokovic, Psychology graduate and BJJ practitioner at Kimura Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu Academy in Serbia.


Running the Gauntlet is a tradition that more and more academies abandon every day. Most modern academies abandon it because it’s a legal liability and to put it bluntly, it’s bad for business in a world where you can get to a 2 stripe brown belt level over the internet. But scientific research offers great insight as to why it might not be the worst idea to see the gauntlet replaced or perhaps adapted to the modern times or at least controlled.

Earlier today I read an article detailing the account of someone who had lamented the abandoning of said ritual. This fellow compared people complaining about getting hurt in the ritual to people getting hurt during training  and feared both would be outlawed in future.

The sad truth is, that given how intensive jiu-jitsu training is, we all get hurt at some point but that hardly has bearing on a ritual that in no way reflects the level of one’s skill.

Many jiu-jiteiros call this torturous procedure a “rite of passage” and facilitate a myth of it creating a unified team front.


Vast majority of research indicated that hazing ceremonies in sport exist because there’s a demand for an entry ritual and to mark the membership and identity within the team structure. Everything sounds great, correct?

Many rationales exist for communities to maintain and construct entry rituals but the most important factor is the articulated desire for membership (Johnson, 2000). Membership is a rite of passage specifying a permanent change of status such as going from one belt level to the next in contrast to more transient membership where an athlete is already cross training and involved in multiple communities like one would do when training for MMA bouts for example.


Here you can spot the rationale for why the Gi bjj training is the perfect fertile ground for entry rituals. But the intensity of hazing doesn’t adequately reflect the level of community expressed – as it can be a true destructive factor on the formation of community.

You can often hear someone who had participated in the gauntlet talking about how some form of pain and violence creates a sense of togetherness, belonging etc. But is this just broscience?

For starters, sport initiations differ from historical or cultural rites but it also has one significant aspect – “perceived” development of communitas. In terms of psychological research going through the gauntlet creates a sense of vulnerability and a consequent dependence on the group and its hierarchy.

Social psychology defines communitas as relationships between people that jointly undergo a ritual transition through which they can experience an intense sense of intimacy and equality which can be spontaneous, immediate and concrete.

But – if the ritual is marked with excessive pain, degradation or humiliation… all of this uplifting sociological research might be negated.


Most bjj academies are co-ed so a gender also plays a role. In general all hazing among men is more likely to be violent in nature while hazing among women is more likely to be psychological (Allan and Madden, 2008). But it doesn’t end there – when women participate in male dominated sports, the ceremony, in this case running the gauntlet, serves to reinforce notions of masculinity and as such can have drastic consequences to identity.

Still, athletes often describe their “need” to have an initiation ceremony as a team bonding experience that marks the group as a “team”.  The initiation ceremony is of course both identity forming and destroying, particularly in sports in terms of science. But this doesn’t eliminate a crucial point of conflict that might be the biggest argument against gauntlets thus far – gauntlets often have sadistic purpose for members who have gone through them themselves.

Initiations also serve a cathartic and/or sadistic purpose for members. As the members shift into their “veteran” identity (having gone through their own initiation), with its associated power and status over white belts (or newbies), the initiation can facilitate the expression of grudges from their own hazing and/or feelings of sadism and cruelty. The danger is that the cycle of violence or abuse becomes attached to the ritual of belonging and membership, making hazing appear necessary for team membership (Durkheim, 1995; Marshall, 2002) further destroying the sense of belonging.


But in order for an organization to work effectively as a team, initiation must develop unity. Some of those who haze feel that it is a way for these groups to develop a sense of cohesiveness and oneness within a group. Initiating gives the participants a type of commonality, because they have gone through an experience together and survived. In this process, however, hazing is highly abusive behavior that one often has no choice but to endure in order to get to the next level. This is one integral aspect majority of sociologists agree upon – the lack of choice in the matter of undergoing an initiation is especially disturbing.

In the USA, there are just 6 states that don’t have hazing laws that also encompass the gauntlet. Picture credit BJJ Brick



Results from one of the only studies to date on hazing and perceived group cohesion indicated that the more appropriate team building behaviours that athletes were involved in, the more socially cohesive they perceived their team to be. In other words, whipping someone into a mess is definitely not the best way to have team unity longterm. This suggests that the argument that hazing builds team cohesion is flawed. Hazing is associated with less, not more, team cohesion (Van Raalte et al. 2007:491).

All organizations need new members to continue, and new members need a sense of belonging. Initiation can serve this function, while also reassuring senior members that the new people value membership inthe group (Nuwer 1999:34). Initiations incorporating excessive pain are quite successful
at breeding conformity, subservience, and discipline that, while defeating the “community” intent of initiation, perpetuate the myth ofcohesion. Further, excessive physical or mental demands on a new member cause fractured units within the larger group and sabotage the development
of a truly unified membership. (Johnson, 2016)


When you consider all of scientific evidence perhaps the replacing of the gauntlets is not the worst thing and it won’t further the “pussification” of bjj in any way. The need for a ritual is there but by no means does it require redundant pain, reckless approach to injuring others or airing your grudges on unsuspecting team members in a way that’s not jiu-jitsu friendly.





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